Me and Lil’ Stevie
See Through An
APT PUPIL (1998)
( Establishing shot of a suburban high school at the end of the day, with teens exiting classes for the afternoon. Camera pans across the campus lawn as the last bell of the day rings in the background. The school doors are vomiting out happy looking all-American teens with their backpacks slung over their shoulders and carefree looks on their faces. They all race to the parking lot and jump into their cool cars with their best gals and speed off to do the fun stuff that all teens do. Camera pans back to the school doors, where one last student is sauntering out. We zoom in closer to see that it isn’t a student, but a man carrying a ventriloquist dummy in the shape of Master of Horror, Stephen King.)
Lil’ Stevie: (Dressed in a tiny Nazi costume) Sieg Heil, mine little comrades!
Peter: Are you insane? L.L. will never let this fly!
Lil’ Stevie: Chill out, dumbkoff! This is legit. It’s all a part of today’s review. Guten Nacht, herrs and fraulines. Ich heissa Stephen King, und…
Peter: Stop right there, Mein Fuhrer! Welcome, Constant Viewers, to another edition of ME AND LIL’ STEVIE. Today we’ll be discussing the 1998 Bryan Singer film APT PUPIL. Now, most film and comic book geeks will already recognize Singer’s name from his directorial work with the X-MEN films, but would undoubtedly be impressed with the actual number of credits he’s accumulated in his career as a writer/director/producer. Singer is a very accomplished and talented individual, and definitely proves his merit here in King’s Dominion.
Lil’ Stevie: Which says a lot, seeing that most people tend to avoid Nazi movies like the plague!
Peter: What the hell are you talking about? MARATHON MAN (1976), THE BOYS FROM BRAZIL (1978), SCHINDLER’S LIST (1993), INGLORIOUS BASTERDS (2009)…Don’t any of those popular titles ring a bell?
Lil’ Stevie: Oh, whatever!
Peter: Anyway, King released the novella APT PUPIL in his 1982 collection DIFFERENT SEASONS. This particular book has the distinction of being King’s first real departure from the horror genre, releasing four novellas that felt more like suspenseful dramas that flourished on literary merit over the blood and guts theatrics of his earlier novels. Of course, APT PUPIL really is the darkest entry, with its roots planted in the world’s most infamous blight to humanity.
Lil’ Stevie: Now you’re talking MY language!
Peter: The story centers around Todd Bowden (The late Brad Renfro, who was sixteen when the movie was filmed, and then was cursed to a string of bit parts in films and television until his untimely death in 2008), a straight-A student who, after studying the Holocaust in his history class, discovers that his neighbor Mr. Denker (Ian McKellen, X-MEN, 2000) is actually the Nazi war criminal Kurt Dussander. Obviously, he…
Lil’ Stevie: In my novella, the story begins with young Todd rapping on Dussander’s door, ready to hear all about the horrors of Nazi Germany!
Peter: You’re jumping the gun on me, so to speak. Yeah, the story centers around a bright young and impressionable teenage boy, who happens to discover that the guy down the street is a Nazi. The premise is far-fetched as hell, but King makes it work in the novella. And why not? Most people are fascinated by murder and death and inhumanity, provided that it is as far removed from their own personal lives as possible. The Holocaust is one of the most significant events of the Twentieth Century. Its very existence proved to the world that humans are not as civilized and gregarious as we’d like to believe we are. In fact, it proved that mankind is still full of monsters, even when the monsters are people just following orders to protect their own lives. We don’t like to admit it, but it is fascinating as hell…especially for high school boys who don’t understand the significance or impact that real evil holds.
Lil’ Stevie: That’s very deep, coming from YOU!
Peter: So, Todd shows up at Dussander’s door and practically lays it all out on the table. “I know who you are”…”I had to be sure, so I dusted your mailbox for fingerprints,”…”I’m not going to turn you in unless you do as I say!” And what young Todd wants is for Dussander to fill in the blanks; to tell him what it was like in the concentration camps, how it felt, what he remembered. And all under the understanding that Todd has written down everything he knows about Dussander, so if anything happens, the Feds will know what happened and how to find him.
Lil’ Stevie: The classic cat-and-mouse game. Do you like how I pitted a young, clever high school kid against an old, frail man who happens to be a murderer back in Hitler’s Reich?
Peter: What happens is that the REAL Stephen King ramps things up. As Todd’s relationship with Dussander grows over time, he becomes more and more deeply enthralled in the old man’s death stories, to the point where he begins losing sleep and failing all of his classes. Meanwhile, Dussander begins to find empowerment in reliving his old past. Todd shows up to his house one afternoon and offers Dussander a gift. Dussander opens the box and finds a Nazi officer costume inside. At Todd’s command, Dussander dons the duds and begins performing drill maneuvers at Todd’s whim. It’s creepy as hell to watch as McKellen clicks his heels with precision while turning and marching, until he throws up his hand in a Nazi salute that even causes Todd to freak out a bit.
Lil’ Stevie: McKellen is marvelous in this role. His German accent is beyond convincing, and the conviction he gives in his performance should have given him an Oscar nod. But since it IS a Nazi movie…
Peter: The story continues to escalate as Dussander begins fighting back over the domination that young Todd is trying to hold over him. First, he shows up for dinner at the request of Todd’s parents (Todd has told them that he goes to the old man’s house to read for him and do small tasks for the old man), and enthralls the Bowdens with fictitious stories about his past life and a never-ending string of lies that he has based his post-Nazi life around in becoming Mr. Denker. And when Todd’s high school career is jeopardized by his failing grades, Dussander shows up at Todd’s guidance counselor’s office under the guise of being Todd’s grandfather. The guidance counselor, Mr. Finch (David Schwimmer, the wimpy guy from TV’s FRIENDS), explains that he can help Todd pass his courses if he aces ALL of his exams.
Lil’ Stevie: And here begins the transition of control from Todd to Dussander, as Dussander suddenly wises up and starts taking away the power that he has given the boy. He informs Todd that he has taken out a safe deposit box at the local bank, and has written every last detail about his relationship with Todd and placed it safely inside. Should anything suddenly, accidentally happen to Dussander, the law will step in and take that information, and Todd will suddenly be accountable. After all, by now Todd has known about Dussander’s secret for months and has done nothing to alert the authorities about his existence.
Peter: It’s fascinating to watch as Todd, who has kept Dussander as his own personal pet, suddenly understands just how deep he’s gotten himself into his own mess. Not only does he have to buckle down and make the grades (so that his parents don’t discover that he was actually poised to fail his courses), he has to make sure that Mr. Finch doesn’t catch on that he and Dussander have flat-out lied to him, and he has to make sure that nothing happens to Dussander.
Lil’ Stevie: You don’t mess with an ex-Nazi officer. You don’t do it!
Peter: …While in the world of Dussander, you have a frail old man suddenly rediscovering the power he once had in his prior life and letting it fill him with a new sense of purpose and invigoration. Dussander’s flashbacks will actually lead him to turn on his oven and try to put his cat inside it, and later bring him to leading a homeless man into his house and trying to murder the man in cold blood.
Lil’ Stevie: Which will bring us to the climax of our enchanting little film!
Peter: While trying to murder the homeless guy, Dussander slips into cardiac arrest. He dials up young Todd on the telephone and tells him to come over immediately. It’s imperative, as there is now a possible murder-victim in Dussander’s basement and a damning piece of information about Todd still waiting in the bank’s safe deposit box. If the boy wants to keep his record clean, he will have to rush over and take care of Dussander’s dirty work and clean up the mess.
Lil’ Stevie: Of course, the homeless guy ISN’T dead…
Peter: Which means Todd will finally get a taste of murder that he has been so captivated by in all of Dussander’s stories!
Lil’ Stevie: …And you say it isn’t a horror story!
Peter: It isn’t. And it is. It’s hard to distinguish just how one would label this picture. It’s a suspense thriller, to say the least. The screenplay by Brandon Boyce follows King’s story near perfectly.
Lil’ Stevie: Not true! Not True!
Peter: How so?
Lil’ Stevie: The ending is TOTALLY different. In the movie, after Dussander’s demise, Todd’s secret is discovered by Mr. French. French shows up at Todd’s folks’ house to talk to them about Dussander and Todd’s lack of ethics, only to be blackmailed by Todd into keeping his secret. In MY story, Todd guns down Mr. French, and then heads off to the freeway with a rifle to start picking off random motorists until he, too, is taken down.
Peter: Wow, that’s really dark. How do you sleep at night?
Lil’ Stevie: Like a LOG!
Peter: Well, overall, this really is an impressive adaptation. Renfro’s Todd Bowden is truly disturbing to watch…how he listens with relish to the old man’s stories and how he empowers himself over Dussander, even though Dussander is a notorious war criminal. The cat-and-mouse relationship between the two is fraught with brilliant tension, and as Lil’ Stevie pointed out, McKellen is spot-on!
Lil’ Stevie: So how come APT PUPIL doesn’t get the same love as THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION (1994) and STAND BY ME (1986)? These stories all came from DIFFERENT SEASONS…
Peter: Because APT PUPIL isn’t a feel-good movie like the other two are. It’s not a triumph-of-the-human-spirit film in the slightest. You don’t get that kind of movie out of Nazi-related material. Especially when your movie has no clear-cut protagonist. Both Todd and Dussander are terrible people. It’s how these two terrible people interact that makes the movie so fascinating.
Lil’ Stevie: But you pointed out SCHINDLER’S LIST and INGLORIOUS BASTERDS…
Peter: Yeah, one’s a bio-pic about a guy who worked to save Holocaust victims and one’s a historical revisionist piece filled with absurdist humor and anti-Nazi propaganda.
Lil’ Stevie: Speilberg’s a hack and Tarantino’s a ham! I am the Fuhrer of Fiction!
The high school’s doors suddenly fly open, and out walk Quentin Tarantino with a machine gun and Steven Speilberg with a baseball bat.
Tarantino: We’re here to collect some scalps! Ain’t that right, Jew Bear?
Speilberg: Let’s get medieval on their asses!
Peter: Holy crap! Let’s get out of here!
Lil’ Stevie: Auf Weidersein, folks! See you next time!
© Copyright 2012 by Peter N. Dudar
(DISCLAIMER: for those who haven’t seen the movie INGLORIOUS BASTERDS, the name “Jew Bear” refers to Eli Roth’s character in Quentin Tarantino’s film, and it is not meant in any offensive way here).